Meet David Stites

INL engineer gives new life to vintage snowcat

Published online: Apr 05, 2021 Articles, Lifestyle Steven Petersen for INL Communications & Outreach
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David Stites has always had a knack for seeing things to completion. 

In his eyes, the sense of accomplishment that comes from creating something of your own is an incomparable feeling.

It’s easy to imagine that helping create something inside the most powerful research reactor in the world is as blissful as it gets for Stites, which is exactly what he has done as an Idaho National Laboratory employee for over 30 years. 

But somewhere in between now and then, Stites found something else that can rival that feeling: Restoring vintage snowcats. 

Jumping Headfirst into Engineering

Born and raised in Pocatello, much of Stites’ childhood was spent making his own fun. At any given time, he could be found fishing in his family’s creek with a handmade fishing pole, crafting rafts from scratch or learning to tinker with engines from his father and grandfather, both of whom were mechanics.

When it came time to pursue a career, one of Stites’ friends told him he was going to enroll at Idaho State University to study engineering, and in true “if you jump, I jump” fashion, Stites followed suit.

“I had never thought about being an engineer or planned on it at all,” Stites said. “My friend just said, ‘let’s go sign up,’ and that’s how I became an engineer.”

Finding a New Hobby

Initially popularized in the mid-20th century, snowcats (short for snow and caterpillar) are vehicles known for their ability to traverse on snow with ease. The machines are often used for grooming and maintaining ski and snowmobile trails, as well as navigating harsh tundra biomes during polar research expeditions and even search and rescue missions.

Stites’ experience with the machines began in 2010 while hunting in rural Idaho when he stumbled upon what turned out to be a 1953 Frandee Model D. Needing a new weekend project, he tracked down its owner and brought the vintage snowcat home.

Little did he know that he would spend the next eight years completely restoring the machine back to what it looked and felt like rolling off the assembly line in 1953.

Supporting the Advanced Test Reactor

Stites’ career at INL began in 1988 as a reactor operator at the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR), the most powerful research reactor in the world. 

As the only one of its kind in the nation, ATR is a critical research asset that can provide decades long irradiation exposure found in typical reactors in a matter of years, greatly accelerating nuclear energy advancements.

Stites has held several positions at ATR, including spending 19 years as a reactor experiment designer. For the last decade, he’s been a part of the reactor’s Plant 

and Projects Engineering Group. In his role, Stites ensures that the facility remains the world’s most powerful test reactor, which is a rigorous, yet rewarding process.

“It might take you four years to design an experiment that’s never been done before or a new modification that’s going into the reactor,” Stites said. “But that sense of accomplishment when it’s finished and worked after all those years is just the best.”

Beginning the Restoration Process

Like any of the experiments and modifications that he helped with at ATR, the restoration process of Stites’ Model D was far from easy. Being that the snowcat was several decades old and extremely rare, with only 20 of them ever produced, resources related to its assembly were scarce. 

“With the reactor, there’s a ton of research that you have to do to design an experiment and a lot of it is using resources from when the reactor was first built,” said Stites. “It’s the same with snowcats. I have to research all of the parts, engines and technology that they used on the snowcats just like I did with the reactor.”

After several years of research, he began remanufacturing the Model D from front to back, replacing practically everything inside and outside of the machine. Instead of updating the snowcat with newer components, his intention was for the machine to feel like he was stepping back into 1953 the moment he sat on the Model D’s seat, and after eight years, he did just that.

“The entire process was a parallel feeling to what I did at work,” said Stites.

Reflecting on 33 Years at INL

2021 marks 33 years since Stites began his tenure at INL, but it also signifies something else: His retirement.

As he reflects on his time at INL, one would think the accomplishment Stites is most proud of would be the countless experiments he helped bring to life, or maybe the augmentations he’s helped perform to ATR. But in his eyes, it’s the mentoring he’s done with engineers over the years, the likes of which include his own son.

“It makes me proud,” Stites said. “It’s very nice to be able to pass on some of my knowledge because I did what they’re doing for so long.” 

Click here to read the April issue of Idaho Falls Magazine.

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